Should B-Schools Be Hiring Blind?

More organizations are taking steps to remove bias from their employee recruitment practices. Should business schools do the same?
Should B-Schools Be Hiring Blind?

BUILDING A DIVERSE AND inclusive workplace relies on a commitment to setting benchmarks and designing strategies to reach a broader pool of talent. But what happens if that commitment and those strategies aren’t resulting in a more diverse workforce?

Leaders at many organizations might view their lack of success as unfortunate but perhaps unavoidable, largely due to factors beyond their control. But that’s rarely the case, says Joelle Emerson, founder and CEO of Paradigm, a consulting firm dedicated to helping companies grow more diverse.

“Most companies we work with believe that the only reason they aren’t hiring more people from underrepresented backgrounds is that those people are not applying,” says Emerson. “But when we analyze their hiring processes, we might find, for instance, that men pass their phone screenings at higher rates than women in ways that aren’t explained by anything other than unconscious bias. Companies are routinely surprised to learn that who is applying is often only a part—and sometimes the smallest part—of the problem.”

In fact, on closer analysis, many organizations find that they are attracting far more women and minority applicants than they had originally perceived. It’s just that those applicants aren’t making it past initial screenings, even when they possess the required qualifications. The reasons for that are complex, personal, and often unintentional, says Emerson. To address the problem, organizations must be willing to discover where they might be throwing up barriers of entry for underrepresented candidates. And, in some cases, they’re taking a cue from modern orchestras to evaluate candidates based on nothing other than their skills.

Hiring with Chairs Turned

When the television show “The Voice” debuted on Dutch television in 2010, it was the first televised talent show in which judges heard auditions with their chairs turned to the performers, so they could evaluate singers solely on the quality of their voices. But the idea of “blind auditions” wasn’t new—it was first made famous in the 1970s when juries for U.S. orchestras changed the format of their auditions so that they could not see who was performing—all musicians auditioned from behind a screen. At the time, women made up only 5 percent of the musicians in U.S. orchestras. However, once blind auditions were instituted, this number began to rise. This one change made it 50 percent more likely that women would be advanced to the next step of evaluation, according to researchers Claudia Goldin and Celia Rouse. They estimate that up to 46 percent of women’s increased participation in orchestras since the 1970s can be attributed to blind auditions. Today, some U.S. orchestras comprise more than 40 percent women.

The blind audition model has made its way into the business world, and recruiters are tapping a new class of startups that facilitate a blind evaluation experience. One such company, GapJumpers, was co-founded by Kédar Iyer and Peter Vujosevic in 2014 and has offices in the United States and the United Kingdom. Research shows, says Iyer, that work samples are one of the strongest predictors of work performance. For that reason, the company’s model relies on an online evaluation platform and skills challenge database, which employers can use to set up customized candidate searches. All candidates are evaluated based only on their qualifications and anonymous work samples, not on gender, race, or other identifying characteristics.

“THE BLIND AUDITION MODEL HAS MADE ITS WAY INTO THE BUSINESS WORLD THROUGH A NEW CLASS OF STARTUPS THAT FACILITATE A BLIND EVALUATION EXPERIENCE.”

To test the efficacy of its blind evaluation model, GapJumpers recently partnered with Stanford University’s Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research to analyze outcomes for companies that conducted approximately 6,000 blind interviews on the company’s platform. They found that when GapJumpers’ client companies evaluated résumés through traditional methods, they invited only 17 percent of women applicants and 28 percent of minority applicants to come in for formal interviews. With the blind evaluations, these numbers jumped to 59 percent and 67 percent, respectively.

This improvement in interview rates has translated into increased diversity among new hires. At the companies surveyed, women now receive 43 percent of job offers, compared to only 26 percent using traditional methods. Minorities now receive 39 percent of job offers, compared to 19 percent before. In addition, 40 percent of candidates selected for formal interviews now come from nontraditional educational backgrounds, including those who are self-taught in their fields or who were educated at boot camps. These are candidates who might have been disregarded early on in a traditional hiring process, says Iyer. As an added benefit, these companies also have reduced their total recruitment time by 26 percent.

Iyer finds it encouraging that more companies are realizing the impact of bias—and recognizing that they need to change the way they hire if they want to reap the benefits that a diverse workforce brings. He also points to the large cache of knowledge—particularly Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow— that is available to provide guidance to organizations that want to adopt new hiring practices.

No organization needs to “try to re-invent the wheel,” Iyer emphasizes. “There is a ton of valid and reliable research out there on how to deal with bias.”

Hiring for Skill, Not 'Fit'

In May, Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts, began piloting a program designed to result in a fairer, more consistent, and more intentional approach to faculty hiring. While the school hasn’t gone so far as to adopt blind interviews, its goal is for hiring committees to be so exact in their evaluation criteria, there will be no room to consider a person’s race, gender, or other factors not pertinent to the job, says Katie Lampley, director of the school’s office of diversity and inclusion.

“We want to move away from the common practice of hiring for ‘fit’—you know, when someone is hired because the person ‘just felt right,’” says Lampley. “That may be true, but if that was the case, did you hire that person based on the characteristics and skills you said were required or preferred for this position? We’re asking all of our search committees to have real conversations about who the ideal candidate is and what skills are required.”

The pilot stems from the school’s efforts over the past three years to increase minority representation among its faculty by strengthening its relationship with The PhD Project, a nonprofit dedicated to attracting more minorities to business academic disciplines. As part of this partnership, Bentley sponsors receptions and delivers three-day teaching workshops for recent doctoral graduates coming through the nonprofit. By being more intentional about hiring, Bentley has increased the percentage of its faculty who are from underrepresented groups from 4 percent to 6 percent since 2009.

But the school’s leaders realize that if they want to move that number higher, they have to focus on more than how they source potential candidates, says Lampley. “If we didn’t want to plateau, we needed to become more formal in how we were approaching our hiring.”

As part of its new strategy, Bentley’s hiring committees now follow a four-step process that includes several checkpoints to alert them of possibilities for bias. Each of these checkpoints offers them a chance to correct course when necessary. (To read more about these four steps, see “Decoding the Hiring Process.”)

Research & Reflection

In conjunction with this process, members of Bentley’s hiring committees also attend a two-hour workshop on unconscious bias. Designed in-house, the workshop’s content is based on the latest research in diversity, inclusion, and bias.

HOW DOES SYSTEM 1 THINKING RELATE TO PEOPLE’S SOCIAL IDENTITIES, IN AREAS LIKE GENDER AND RACE?

“We talk, for instance, about research that has found that faculty search committees at Research I institutions give preference to male candidates at a much higher rate than female candidates,” says Lampley. “We present studies that suggest that mothers are rated as less competent and less committed in their jobs than nonmothers, but that fathers are rated as more committed—and are actually offered higher starting salaries—than nonfathers. These are things that you wouldn’t necessarily think happen in hiring, but there they are.”

Participants also learn that letters of recommendation for men tend to be longer and talk about their accomplishments, while those for women tend to be shorter and reference their personal characteristics. It’s important for search committees to keep this bias in mind as they review candidates’ letters of recommendations, Lampley says.

Like Iyer, Lampley cites Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow as an especially eye-opening work, which is why the workshop prominently features his explanation of how the human brain has evolved to process information—quickly through “System 1” thinking and slowly through “System 2” thinking. Once participants understand how System 1 and System 2 thinking work, Lampley presents several riddles for them to solve. For instance, she might put up a picture of the Ark from the Bible and ask, “How many animals of each kind did Moses take on the Ark?” Because of System 1 thinking, most participants will quickly answer “two,” Lampley notes.

“When I tell them that it wasn’t Moses but Noah who built the Ark, they realize that all of us can be stumped like this, that we all are impacted by our brains’ unconscious processing. And we’re not aware, for the most part, that it’s happening,” she says.

From there, participants tackle questions such as “How does System 1 thinking relate to people’s social identities, in areas like gender and race?” At that point, says Lampley, participants realize that no matter what they personally believe to be right or true, their brains might subconsciously default to System 1 associations that contradict those convictions. Finally, participants engage in experiential and “forced perspective” exercises. For example, they take the versions of Harvard’s Implied Association Test that help gauge their unconscious associations about race and gender. (See “Breaking Through Bias” for more information about the IAT.)

These workshops are effective because rather than preach about the dangers of bias, they introduce the topic gradually, says Lampley. Workshops start with lighthearted activities that show bias at work, before delving into research that shows its real-world consequences. Only then do participants reflect on their own biases and engage in frank discussion about ways to make the school’s hiring process less susceptible to them.

Removing Subjectivity

Paradigm’s Emerson hopes more organizations and higher education institutions will follow Bentley’s lead and adopt changes in their hiring processes that take bias into account. She offers two more suggestions in this regard. First, in addition to identifying gendered language in the description of job requirements, hiring committees might want to look at the language they use when they solicit materials from applicants.

“For example, some companies might refer to work samples as ‘tests,’ a term that can ignite what we call a ‘stereotype threat,’ which is a certain type of anxiety among underrepresented groups that can inhibit their performance,” Emerson says. Just making the subtle change of calling it a “work sample” or “exercise,” she explains, can have a big impact on applicant performance.

Second, Emerson points out that hiring committees should recognize that applicants from majority groups are more likely than minorities to share networks with employees who already work in the organization. “These applicants are going to be better prepared for interviews, because they’ve already talked to people who work there and who have gone through the interview process before. This gives unintentional disadvantages to those who might not know anyone who works there,” says Emerson. One remedy? An organization might provide more information to all candidates about what to expect during the interviewing process.

When it comes to Bentley’s new approach, Lampley hopes the process will remove some of the subjectivity that can enter into hiring and recruitment, so that both hiring committees and applicants are on the same page and understand the job and its requirements in similar ways.

“We know our brains,” she says. “As much as we’d like to believe that we’re fully in control of the decisions we make, we aren’t. This is a way to put a structure into place that will reduce the bias that can come into the process.”

This article originally appeared in BizEd's November/December 2017 print issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to bized.editors@aacsb.edu.